Waterloo 2015: Planning the bicentenary

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It is often dismissed as a bland commuter town serving Brussels but next year, Waterloo will very much be the focus of international attention. The reason? The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, of course.

In the finest spirit of Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington, organizers are now setting about preparing for the big event, and it’s being done with military precision. Organizing committees have been formed, draft programmes drawn up and exhibitions arranged.

With some 200,000 people expected to descend on the site of Wellington’s famous victory in 1815, it’s little wonder that Etienne Claude, who is responsible for the organization of the re-enactment, excitedly pronounces: “Bicentenaries don’t come around too often so we’re going to be ready for this one.”

In the best traditions of the military, the time, he declares, has come to fine-tune the proposed activities. These will take place over what Claude describes as “five historic days”, from Wednesday 17 to Sunday 21 June 2015.

According to the programme, commemorations will get underway on 17 June with the inauguration of the Hougoumont Farm, where British and other allied forces faced Napoleon’s army – the farm has been restored thanks to an estimated €1m UK government funding.

There will be an official celebration on Thursday 18 June in the presence of military bands representing the nations present at the time and of descendants of opposing forces.

The first re-enactment is planned for the evening of Friday 19 June, recreating one phase of the battle, in particular the famous attack led by Drouet d’Erlon. The bivouacs of those carrying out the re-enactment will also open to the public from 9am.

A night-time show around the Lion Mound is scheduled at 11pm on Saturday, 20 June while a second re-enactment of another phase of the battle will take place on the morning of Sunday 21 June. This, says Claude, will incorporate scale models of the farms to give a better understanding of the fighting.

An option has been taken on a 30-hectare piece of land that witnessed the historic events and which he says offers “clear visibility, where it would be possible to welcome up to 60,000 spectators per event”. At present, this possibility is being studied by the different bodies responsible for its suitability on health and safety grounds.

According to initial estimates, the two reenactments will involve as many as 5,000 participants, 300 horses and cavaliers and some 100 canons, a figure that has never before been achieved.

Groups from as far away as Australia and New Zealand are already organizing their trip, and the bicentenary is already the subject of intense activity on the internet with ‘Waterloo 200’ committees being set up in both the UK and in the Netherlands.

Even the Wall Street Journal devoted an entire page to the gentile battle taking place between two candidates for the role of Napoleon. It says French lawyer Frank Samson will go head to head with American actor Mark Schneider for the prestigious part in the 200th anniversary.

“It is clear,” says Claude, “that the event is already being keenly anticipated on an international scale.”

To help promote the bicentenary, several events will be organized, including themed concerts starting in June and, in the same month, the cinema release of the film Waterloo, directed by Hugues Lanneau and co-produced by the non-profit organization ‘Bataille de Waterloo 1815’. Opening nights will be held in London and in Paris.

The Bataille de Waterloo 1815 was formed 25 years ago to prepare for the 175th anniversary of the battle, an event that attracted 150,000 visitors.

The event organizers have also been invited to participate in the Lord Mayor’s parade in London in November, and an international symposium is scheduled for next March, organized by the Fondation Napoléon, with 250 leading historians discussing the theme ‘The legacy of Waterloo in history’.

There will also be an exhibition entitled ‘Napoleon-Wellington, Intertwined Destinies’ at the Wellington Museum in April 2015, with the participation of the family of the Duke of Wellington and of the Fondation Napoléon.

A commemorative set of stamps will be released, with exhibitions organized by the philately clubs of Braine-l’Alleud and Waterloo, also in April 2015.

Organizers also hope to recreate the route taken by Wellington’s ‘Waterloo dispatch’, leaving from the Wellington Museum in Waterloo, with what Claude promises “spectacular stops” in Brussels, Ghent and Ostend.

It doesn´t stop there with sports clubs expected to organize international tournaments, bringing together French, English, German, Dutch and Belgium teams… as was the case in 1965 to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.

Laurence Nelis, one of those responsible for organizing the re-enactment, said: “An awful lot has already been planned and there will no doubt be plenty of other ideas both from Belgium and from abroad.”

The site of one of the most epic battles in military history actually currently looks like more of a building site than a place of history.

The reason is the ongoing work for a brand new €40m visitor centre, something that hasn´t met with universal approval with some local restaurateurs, who say their businesses have been badly hit by the works which has reduced access to the Lion Mound, where the Prince of Orange is believed to have been wounded on 18 June 1815.

Even so, it is hoped that all the disruption will be worth it when the Waterloo Memorial finally opens around the middle of May 2015. The underground centre will feature all the latest high-tech features. It expects to attract up to 500,000 visitors a year, more than double the current figure.

Arrangements are, of course, being made for the thousands expected to converge on the area for the five-day celebrations –an internet site is being set up that will enable numbered places to be reserved online. This will make it possible for 40,000 seated places, divided between the two re-enactments, to be booked in advance.

Tickets are expected to go on sale from April, and a temporary website has been set up more information.

Some have questioned whether the Battle of Waterloo was ever necessary in the first place and, with attention currently very much focused on the WW1 commemorations this year, it would be easy to forget the significance of events of 1815.

But with a large and varied list of events already planned, it is clear that June 2015 will see the ultimate Waterlo re-enactment. Old Bonaparte would have been proud.